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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Museo del Vetro in Venice

What is the Museo del Vetro?

The Museo del Vetro is a museum in Venice that charts the history of glass. It is located in Murano, the glassmaking capital of the Western world for centuries.

palazzo giustinian

Sailko, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Museo del Vetro History

The island of Murano has been home to master glassmakers since the 13th century, but glass production has existed on the Venetian lagoon since ancient times. Archeologists have found evidence of Roman glassmaking on the island of Torcello, and have excavated the remains of a factory, with a large circular furnace, dating from the 7th or 8th century.

Following the decline of Torcello, glass production on the lagoon was primarily based in Venice. In 1268, a document was drawn up which established a guild of glassmakers in the city. Their patron saint was – and still is – Saint Nicholas of Myra, more widely known as Santa Claus.

By the 13th century, the Venetian government had become anxious about the city’s many glassmaking furnaces, which reached temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees Celsius. The overcrowded medieval city was full of wooden buildings, and risked the rapid spread of deadly fires. In 1291, a law was passed which forced glassmakers to relocate to Murano. The Venetian authorities also had their own selfish reasons for doing this: exiling the glassmakers to Murano enabled them to jealously safeguard the secrets of their most prized industry.

Exhibits in the glass museum in Venice

Tajchman Maria, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Venetian glassmakers were effectively held as prisoners in their new home. Individuals could not leave Murano without the government’s permission. If artisans were found to have divulged their secrets to competitors, they could be put to death.

Venetian and Murano glass was much more advanced than the Roman glass made in Torcello. Glass production originated in the Middle East around 4,000 years ago. The Venetian Republic had inherited Middle Eastern trade links from the Byzantine Empire, and so artisans were able to adopt complex techniques such as enameling and gilding from Syrian and Egyptian artisans. Prior to that, in 1204, Venetians participated in the Fourth Crusade, when European Christians infamously sacked the great city of Constantinople. Amidst destruction and bloodshed, Venetian forces stole precious examples of master glasswork, and brought back Byzantine glassmakers who would pass on their exclusive knowledge to their captors.

The Murano Glass Museum building is a Gothic Renaissance palace that was originally built for a noble family. In the 17th century, it was bought by Marco Giustinian, the bishop of Torcello, who bequeathed his fabulous home to the Church. After two centuries as the seat of the bishops of Torcello, the luxurious palazzo was converted into a museum by the Mayor of Murano and an abbot called Vincenzo Zanetti. The founders were on an educational and conservational mission. Murano glassmaking had been in decline since the Venetian Empire was dissolved by Napoleon seven decades earlier in 1797. Abbot Zanetti coordinated an apprenticeship program and glassmaking workshop, where he passed on the endangered techniques learned many centuries earlier from the Arab and Roman worlds.

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